History is fascinating when it unfolds before our eyes, even more when it contains all the elements of a great spy novel. An amateur video shows a plane falling like a stone in the Russian sky, probably hit by a projectile. Then we discover the images of a carcass on fire in the middle of a meadow. No one can survive such a crash. Quickly – too quickly ? – local media report that the plane was carrying Yevgueni Prigojine, the billionaire who founded Wagner, the most powerful private army in the world.
He deserved to appear in a novel by Ian Fleming or John Le Carré. He is nicknamed “Putin’s cook” because he made his fortune in catering before prospering in large-scale butchery. Grim gaze, jowls, double chin: his face is heavy with threats. His life is a mystery, his death no less so. The apprentice master of the world, after defying the tyrant of the Kremlin two months earlier, dies in a plane crash. Should we see Putin’s hand in it? There is a “ reasonable doubt ”, according to the euphemism used at the Quai d’Orsay, that it is a disguised execution. Unless it’s some macabre set-up and the warchief isn’t on board. Will we see him again in the next episode in some secret base ? The twisted history of Russian intelligence encourages us both to the greatest caution and to the wildest fantasies.
Because the probable death of Prigojine is part of a long and bloody tradition of settling scores between Slavic caciques for the conquest of power. From the Tsar’s police to the KGB to today’s intelligence services, Russia’s history is rich in assassinations and physical eliminations. Did Prigozhin have the fate of Rasputin, the occult adviser whose influence had become overwhelming, or of the psychopath Lavrenty Beria who knew all of Stalin’s secrets? The culture of power in the Kremlin is inseparable from an appetite for paranoia and revenge. In Russia, wolves devour each other; their instinct commands them.
It was obvious that Yevgueni Prigojine, by triggering a spectacular mutiny last June, would sooner or later pay the price. It is now a question of measuring the consequences of his disappearance, for the military strategy of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine but also in Africa, where French diplomacy comes up against the soldiery Wagner. Finally, we do not know whether to rejoice in the elimination of a man who scared the whole world, or to deplore the tragic end of an influential oligarch, capable of standing up to Putin. From the billionaire in fatigues with a personal army or the madman of the Kremlin, we don’t know who is less dangerous in the end.
This article is originally published on ladepeche.fr